Sunday, October 31, 2010

The Nut of the Pasania Tree

This morning Pippi and I picked up an interesting kernel of wisdom. While playing ball in Arisugawa Park, a forager began encroaching on our arena. At first I thought the man was one of the many ginkgo nut seekers who come out in masses this time of year. But he was not wearing the telltale white gloves needed to protect the hands from the ginkgo's dreadful smell. So we went up and asked what he was searching for. In response, he extracted this handful of nuts from the pocket of his blue windbreaker.

Not to be confused with garden variety acorns, each shell contains an edible nut. To prove his point, the man peeled off the thin shell with his thumbnail and held out the raw kernel for me to taste. It looked like a peanut. Against my better judgement -- this was probably a pretty stupid thing to do -- I popped it in my mouth and began to chew. He didn't really seem like a crazy person. The taste was surprisingly sweet and toothsome. My new friend then instructed me to take some home and roast them in a fry pan with a sprinkle of salt. Don't think we'll be going there but nice to know we could find food if we ever get lost in a forest.

The leaf of the Pasania tree.

Apparently, the Pasania, aka Lithocarpus, is part of the beech genus. This species is probably native to Asia but may be related to the Tanoak that grows in California and Oregon.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

The Saga of Pippi's Pink Ball

This is a very sad story with a surprise, happy ending. Last weekend, David and I took Pippi on a walk to Tokyo Midtown. While David was inside, Pippi and I remained outside on the wood deck wrapping the rear of the building. Amazingly, a shiny, pink ball with the perfect squishy consistency stood in the middle of the deck, as if waiting for Pippi. Needless to say, this made our wait pass quickly as we played our special brand of Catch followed by Fetch. Pippi is a dexterous dog indeed!

Shopping concluded, the three of us headed for home, pink ball in tow. By the time we reached our apartment, the ball was a bit of a slobbery mess but that is par for the course. Pippi relinquished the ball for a brief stint to eat dinner but then back in the mouth it went. And there it stayed pretty much all evening. When we decided to get into bed, Pippi settled into her favorite spot on the red chair, the pink ball tucked cozily under her chin.

The next morning, Pippi and I got up and, per our usual Sunday morning routine, headed off to Arisugawa Park with the precious pink ball. When we got to the park, I unleashed Pippi and we played Fetch in our various favorite spots -- the paved area, the parking area, the dirt square and, finally, the earth area with the stone fountain.

After all this running and retrieving, the girl had worked up quite a thirst. So we paused our play to have a drink. Now this particular fountain has a stone basin at the bottom where Pippi likes to sit while lapping at the water as it descends from the spigot. The lapping, of course, required the release of the pink ball. And that's when disaster struck.

The thought had crossed my mind earlier that I ought to "water" (the Ward Office's word, not mine) Pippi at a different fountain where there was no threat of a gaping drain hole. But here we were. By now, you can probably guess what happened. No sooner had the pink ball left Pippi's mouth when down into the drain pipe it went, vanishing without so much as a trace. In the blink of an eye, it was simply gone. What a catastrophe.

Once Pippi was done drinking and realized that her adored pink ball was no where in sight, she began searching and nosing frantically. In the bushes. In the rocks. Under leaves. And, of course, in and around the fountain. Oh the frustration! I joined in the hunt in the hope that I might find the drain's outlet. We ventured all the way down to the little creek but there was no sign of the pink ball. Made me very glad that Pippi never had puppies. The poor dog would have been beside herself if we had to give them up.

Then I had an idea. We went back to the middle of the park, where the dog community was out in force. Navigating between the Chihuahuas, Akitas, toy poodles and their respective owners, I approached one of my dog buddies, a slight man with a pony tail and a lab (chocolate) of his own. I explained the situation and he immediately was on the case, first with repeated recitations of that all-purpose word of reassurance "daijoubu" and then with an offer of help. Together we returned to the crime scene and he lifted the heavy, concrete lid from buried box where the run-off gathers. There, bobbing playfully on the surface of the water was the pink ball. Yokatta!

Unfortunately, the water level was a bit too low and our arms were a bit too short to be able to grasp the ball. My pal then got the brilliant idea of trying to retrieve the ball with two twigs, chopstick-style. This still did not work. But about the same time an older woman approached the fountain and turned on the tap. Well, as the water exited the fountain and entered the drain, the water level in the box rose and the ball inched closer. I was beginning to get that warm, fuzzy, alls-well-that-ends-well feeling. And that's when disaster struck again!

Regrettably, the consequences this time were much worse. Unbeknownst to us, there was a hole in the side of the concrete box to siphon off water and prevent overflowing. And, just at the moment when success was so close that we could practically taste it, the ball slipped inside that hole and began its descent to the underworld of the park's sewer system.

His rescue efforts foiled, my friend crept away, tail between his legs. Pippi and I then went back to the creek and the pond in the hope that we might find the pink ball playing Hide-n-Seek in the reeds at the edge of the water. But to no avail. I felt miserable. Pippi was pretty glum too.

But Pippi's mood did not last long. An eternal optimist, that dog found yet another ball. A little slimy and its surface a bit worn away, the new find was no match for the old one but at least it enabled her to leave the park and get on with her day. This is more than I can say for myself -- I am quite certain that I felt worse about that errant ball than Pippi did. I silently vowed to head over to the caretaker's office the next day to see if there was any recourse.

Well, the next day came and I got very busy with work but Pippi and I made our way back to the park eventually. En route, I planned my script -- I could not admit that the ball belonged to my dog since it is against park rules to play with dogs off leash. Instead, I decided to say that the ball was my child's favorite toy. No further explanation needed. Amazingly, as we walked along, Pippi found yet another ball whose days of glory on the tennis court were long gone. I explained to Pippi that if she insisted on carrying her new treasure, she was going to blow my cover. But she simply averted her gaze. I decided I would cross that bridge if and when I ever came to it. And, as the caretaker's office was closed, said crossing was not happening on that Monday.

By this time Pippi had clearly moved on to other balls and I had resigned myself to forging ahead sans pink ball. I thought about chronicling this saga on my blog and decided against it since the story, I felt, was simply too sad and I really did not want to rehash it or remember it.

But, as it turned out, fate intervened. On Friday, I had to go to an interview near Asakusabashi Station in the heart of the wholesale, cheap toy district. The meeting went swimmingly and on my way back to the station I popped into one of these toy distributors to see if, by chance, they might have squishy, plastic balls in stock. Eureka! There they were. Maybe not the exact same model but a very, very close facsimile. I asked the shop keeper how much and he told me I could have the bag of twelve balls for Y800. Elatedly, I made my purchase and then beelined it back to the station. I could not wait to get home and show Pippi.

While Pippi was extremely excited by her new acquisition, she does not harbor the same attachment to the new pink ball that I gave her immediately. But she does like it a lot. And this time, if the ball makes a wrong turn, we have eleven others.

Friday, October 22, 2010

Agriculture: The Gift that Keeps on Giving

Yesterday a very dear friend from neighboring Chiba Prefecture brought me the perfect omiyage: peanuts, a Chiba specialty now in season, and dill harvested from her very own garden.

Let's start with the visuals. I just love the way these two vertical elements, one yellow-ish and one green, emerge in tandem from the brown, paper bag. I also like the paper bag itself -- Freak's Store. Maybe this is where that little subway rider I blogged about a few weeks ago got his hat. Or maybe my friend reads my blog .... or maybe she liked the bag too ... or maybe it was simply at the top of the pile.

Now the contents. I have never seen peanuts packed in a cylindrical bag but this is a great look for peanuts. They ought to do this more often. Clever packaging sells more products. And the dill. How can I do it justice? Dill is my absolute, all time favorite herb. I eat it whenever and as often as possible. Just about everything savory tastes better with dill. I add it to eggs, salads, sandwiches, hummus or just eat it plain. Turns out dill contains trace amounts of plant sterols which help reduce cholesterol naturally. We will eat the sprigs and plant the roots. Hopefully, by next autumn, or sooner, we will be nibbling on dill of our own.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Appetite for Autumn

The other day, a designer I was interviewing taught me the expression Shokuyoku no Aki or "appetite for autumn." These words express appreciation for all things autumnal such as new harvest rice or shinmai, fall foliage and travel, especially to onsen hot springs. Hmmm ... food for thought.

The budding sweet potato farmer, age four.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Minakami Rice

This time of year, Minakami is an armchair agriculturalist's dream. Everywhere, everyone is harvesting something. Why this past weekend alone, we spotted kiwis on the vine, mushrooms of every shape and size, chestnuts in their spiky casings, purple eggplants ready for picking, globe-like persimmons, apples (more on that later) and rice, rice rice!



Located on the rim of Japan's rice bowl, the area is a patchwork of tiny, terraced paddies. Basking in the autumn sun, the fields are now lined with golden stalks drying on makeshift bamboo racks. Amazingly, all farmers cut and hang the exact same way. The scene is so picturesque, straight out of an Impressionist painting. No wonder we rented the house.

A weekend in Minakami would not be right without dropping by the mushroom lady who runs a tiny, mostly mushroom, produce shop on the road to Tsukiyono. In addition to shiitake, maitake and one other kind of fungi, we bought 5 kg. of new harvest rice. Having just arrived from the farmer, the rice was still in a big paper sack like this one with the the traditional twisted closure on top. We watched as she deftly ladled out the appropriate amount. And then threw in a little something extra.

At the other end of the spectrum stands the rice vending machine. Though the quaint factor is missing, the convenience can't be beat. Located at the edges of parking lots, next to the takoyaki stand or drive-thru dry cleaner, they make it easy for motorists to pause and purchase 24 hours a day.

Like an instant photo booth, you simply select the type and quantity of rice, deposit your money, as Okome-kun is demonstrating above, and then hold your chosen vessel under the spout as shown below.

Friday, October 8, 2010

Sun-Bathing Umbrellas

Sometimes you just see something in a new light. Most of the time we do not get to see umbrellas front on like this. I took these photos in Azabu Juban after the torrential rains ended and the sunshine began. Following days of heavy use, these umbrellas were enjoying a good sun bath. They looked so pretty. And I was so happy that the rain was out of our system.

In part, the appeal of this image is purely visual -- the consistent, round shapes, the different colors and the overall, albeit accidental, composition of three across and one down. This scene also manifests certain aspects of Japanese culture. People here seem to like umbrellas and whip them out at the slightest provocation, be it a soft drizzle or, in the case of those black cloth parasols, scorching rays. Only in Japan would someone take the care to air and dry umbrellas out in the sun before returning them to their appointed place, most likely in a bin next to the front door.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Abby's Weirdest Birthday Present

Yesterday was Abby's birthday. It was an absolutely beautiful day. Sunny, about 72 degrees, no humidity, mostly blue sky. Just like the day she was born 16 years ago. I feel very fortunate to have two fall-born babies since autumn is my favorite season. Bar none. The climate just can't be beat. The light is gorgeous. And after years of starting school in September, it still connotes new beginnings.

But back to the subject at hand. We are definitely a family of birthday traditions. Our custom is to artfully arrange the presents on the red chair the night before the big day. As soon as she wakes up, the birthday girl opens her gifts all at once, surrounded by her family. Breakfast is always vanilla ice cream with corn flakes. The choice of birthday cake belongs to the birthday girl but the family favorite seems to be Maida Heatter's Farmer's Daughter Cake: luscious vanilla cake draped with a thick layer of rich chocolate icing.

This year we digressed slightly. Because of the early school bus, Abby chose to open her gifts at the end of the day -- wise move. I think she got an exceptionally good haul (if I do say so myself). By far the weirdest present is this deer-shaped calendar. Crowned with a head of antlers, this buck (I guess) proudly sports the months around its neck like an award. Eve and I thought he would look very dignified standing on Abby's desk. Don't you agree?

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Urchin Pouf

I am really taken with the Urchin Pouf. I know it looks like a giant chrysanthemum but it is actually an ottoman made of wool. Measuring about 2 feet in diameter, it is the product of a Dutch designer. I saw it in a gallery in Ebisu where I was interviewing an architect-turned-clothing designer from Osaka. The knitted exterior consists of very thick, felted strands of Delft blue "yarn." It conceals a slightly flattened orb of a cushion. The proportions, shape, color and, of course, knit surface are all extremely eye-pleasing. It would look great in our living room.